Foundational learning is essential

The level of learning in government schools is extremely poor. Annually only about half the children in grade 5 can read grade 2 text. Only 40% of grade 4 children could solve grade 2 subtraction problems. It is shocking that children are not able to read and write in a language that they often converse in. To resolve this paradox, let’s switch to a completely different field and try and understand how a tall multi-storey building is constructed.

A child may think that the process is a simple, linear one. The most important part of constructing a tall building is getting its foundation right. Designing it correctly, estimating the loads it must take and actually digging and building downwards takes significant time and effort.

However, when it comes to teaching our children, we have not always understood that there is a similar concept of ‘foundational learning’. This foundational learning is not just the step one of learning (which is as important as step two or step five), it is critically important for all learning. On the other hand, if a child has not acquired these foundational skills, they may not be able to benefit even from the teaching of a great mentor!

At the very core is the skill of reading. Being able to read fluently is the basis of all other learning. This is not just because information is presented in written form — neuroscience has shown that the brain of people who can read is rewired and different from those who cannot.

Developing a skill like reading (which, unlike speaking, is not something our brains
have evolved to do over the millennia) build new networks and connections that can then be used for all kinds of learning. Children should be able to read fluently in at least one language by the end of grade 2.

Similarly, fluency in arithmetic operations — addition, subtraction, multiplication and division - is the other foundational skill every child needs. This is not just because we need to calculate in day to day life, but because it affects how our brains fundamentally process information.

Children should be able to fluently perform all these operations by the end of grade 5. Often we see children reading word by word probably not truly grasping the meaning of a sentence.
Similarly, a child may take 10 seconds to figure out that 7 times 8 is 56. It is important for children to be able to perform these tasks without thinking or automatically.

The term ‘fluency’ refers to speed with accuracy. Mere accuracy is not enough because the act of reading a word or sentence of know 7 times 8 is just one piece of the thinking that is needed for us to absorb a story or an argument. In fact, this is another reason why this learning is considered foundational.

With the notable exception of some NGO’s like Pratham who have been emphasising the importance of reading skills as a pre-requisite for all learning, this has not been widely understood either by government or society at large.

Maybe we think intuitively that if a child has not learnt to read by grade 4, she may learn it by grade 5. Another child who is not able to master subtraction by grade 5, we hope, can achieve mastery by grade 6.

But this is not true. Just as a weakness in a building’s foundation cannot
be made up by a super-strong 2nd floor, children who miss the time windows to learn reading and basic arithmetic will tend to drop out either in middle school or fail at grade 10. Research internationally has shown that it is tens of times more efficient to fix learning issues at the foundational stage than to try to make up for these skills at the secondary or higher secondary stage.

Yet, when policymakers want to show results, the focus is often on fixing secondary education or improving performance in the Board Exam classes.In this context, the draft National Education Policy 2019 emphasis on Foundational Learning is welcome and important.

However, the ground situation is very stark with the focus on
the expansion of the education system and getting children to school, than getting them to learn anything, let alone key foundational skills.

Changing this may be the most forward-thinking reform we can undertake as a country.

(The writer is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Educational Initiatives)

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